Scale

scale“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke.

Scale and scope.

When did the scale and scope of speculative fiction become so obsessed with the unimaginable?  This question came to mind the other night when I was watching Star Trek Into Darkness, after having just seen a re-run of Doctor Who‘s “The Eleventh Hour” (s05e01) the day before.  Both shows, so completely different in theme, character, and setting, do have something in common: The stakes are so high that the action — both physical and dramatic — has to be quasi-supernatural in order to … in order to … in order to what?

Keep our attention?

  • Is it really necessary to have a fist fight with a genetically engineered god on top of an air-car traveling at 100 miles per hour?
  • Is it really necessary to have Mr. Spock from two different universes?
  • Is it really necessary to climb through an unimaginably large warp core that’s eerily reminiscent of a famous British police box on the inside?

Speaking of which …

  • Is it really necessary to hack into a global video teleconference?
  • Is it really necessary to have an villain who can shape-shift (clothes, and dog collar, and all) into anything, anything at all?
  • Is it really necessary to program a planet-wide computer virus?

Maybe it is.  I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, because both of these shows charge me with that sense of wonder that’s enchanted me since I was old enough to know what genre is.

Vast scales and scopes are nothing new to the mythos of speculative fiction; not when you had shows like The Twilight Zone telling you that there was a fifth dimension “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity” right there in the corner of your eye; not when you had The Outer Limits telling you that “we will control all you see and hear”; not when you had spaceships traveling to Jupiter so humanity could become star children.  And all of that was a generation ago.

But if we take away today’s themes of the universe-is-going-to-implode-and-all-of-spacetime-is-going-to-get-flushed-down-a-Planck-scale-toilet, then what are we really left with?  We’re left with questions.  And those are the hardest things of all.  Do we seek justice, or do we demand revenge when we see crimes of utter devastation?  Do we trust the man in the bow-tie when he was really only figment of our childhood?   Do we believe there is absolute good and absolute evil?  Or do we believe there’s a spectrum in between?

The struggle to save humanity — the galaxy, the universe, the mutli-verse itself — really pales when compared to the questions that these shows ask.  The visual candy is there — oh, yes — and I will gladly pay the price of admission time and time again to consume it.  But I want to ask these questions.  I want us all to ask questions.  In my opinion, that’s the only way we can grow.  I want to know if there’s moral absolutism or moral relativism … or both.  I want to know what we do when morality changes, if indeed it can.  I want to know how to ask these questions.  I don’t look for answers much anymore, but I don’t think that’s the point anyway.  I think we, as humans, have to ask them.

By the way, a Star Trek fan gave me two hand-made Tribbles.  They’re sitting on the mantle next to a Waterford crystal wine decanter, in stark contrast to one another: The sublime and the ridiculous.  The trouble is, I don’t know which is sublime and which is ridiculous.  That’s another question I’ll have to ask.

Until next time, years truly,

Keith

Copyright © 2013, Keith Parker, except as noted below:

Doctor Who is copyright © 2013 by the BBC. No infringement upon the rights of the BBC is intended.